Plumbing

What does one job posting inform us about San Francisco? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the whole lot.

The vacant position as Deputy Director III for the Building Inspection Department pays up to $ 205,000 per year. The recipient of this job must have a high school diploma or GED. According to the “educational substitution” provision, however, he does not need to have any training at all if he has two additional years of experience in this field.

This post was posted on the city’s website on January 27th. The application deadline was February 3rd. When I emailed on January 29th to inquire about this extremely fast turnaround, I was told that the deadline will now be extended to February 12th.

That’s nice. For reference, the San Jose Construction Department recently advertised a substantially equivalent position as Assistant Director of Senior Management. It required a college degree and preferred a master’s degree – as well as additional professional licensing. Far from a ridiculous weeklong window, it kept its publication active for well over a month. And most importantly, it posted the vacancy on the job board of the International Code Council, perhaps the premier building regulations agency, to ensure the most qualified building inspection professionals in the country have been made aware of this job posting.

If the goal is to get the best, brightest people to run your department, why wouldn’t you?

Incidentally, San Francisco’s job has a peak salary nearly $ 12,000 higher than San Jose’s, despite far fewer requirements. You’d think construction professionals across the country would notice this and include it in their decisions.

But they don’t because San Francisco’s job is only advertised internally and for a relatively short period of time. And in the unlikely event that they even notice the San Francisco offer, savvy professionals will read between the lines and accept its meaning: It is not for them.

“If something gets published for a week, it means there is an incumbent or someone who wants the job,” said a longtime DBI insider. “This is how they do business in the city. When something turns around so quickly? That means they already have someone for the job. ”

A DBI spokesperson described our questions about speeding up as par for the course: “We post job offers for a week to two weeks or longer, so there is nothing unusual about this publication.”

Yes, there is the problem.

In this photo taken on March 16, 2020, a number of permit seekers were stretching out the door of the Department of Building Inspection and down Mission Street just as the Mayor and Director of Health announced the first on-site housing order.

The San Francisco Building Inspection Department is a remarkably isolated place. One might expect to read about his recruitment practices in a history book. It is reminiscent of a 19th century customs house with spittoons on the desks.

There was not just one, but several father-son combinations working inspection details. If you look at attitudes of nearly a decade, you will discover alarming chains of nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters as well as in-laws and spouses and sponsored children of department employees or powerful figures in the building community. These were often optional positions that did not require testing.

That might be okay if the DBI is run by a group of Boy Scouts. But it’s not like that: his former boss, Tom Hui, was fired in March 2020 for handing over management of the department to an outsider, Walter Wong, for most of a decade. (Wong pleaded guilty of federal fraud and money laundering in June, and began working with the government to pin down his high-ranking ex-friends, but none of this affects the degree of ownership he held in DBI for years.)

That might be okay if the department is working well. But that’s not the case: The Building Inspection Department has balanced its reputation for scleroticism with a history of amazing corruption: “Permit Expediters” like Wong and their clients sail through a system in which everyday people sink; Maybe it helps to have so many nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters and in-laws and spouses and godchildren inside. Preferred builders and their expeditors like Rodrigo Santos (AKA “RoDBIgo ”), never seem to have problems getting permits or passing inspections – and work outrageously with impunity, even when actually labeled.

And that might be okay if a large number of candidates could find work here. But they are not. DBI’s latest racial justice data confirms what everyone already knew: This is a conspicuously striped department – in large part due to years of nepotism hiring practices in certain silos.

On the inspection side, 67 percent of building inspectors are white; 71 percent of electrical inspectors are white; and 81 percent of plumbing supervisors are white. The data is not detailed but a good percentage of these inspectors are Irish.

On the plan review side, 56 percent of the approval technicians are Asians. 87 percent of the engineers are Asians.

By the way, there are no black building inspectors, plumbing inspectors or engineers.

“This place is run by two fiefdoms – the Irish and the Asians,” summarizes a long-time employee. DBI’s horizons are narrow when it comes to hiring, and promotions are usually internal – which just perpetuates things.

“Occasionally we go outside,” said one frustrated employee. “But we don’t often reach beyond these walls.”

Tom Hui, head of the building inspection department, seen here in January 2020.

So this is the prism through which the position of the Deputy Director III can be indicated. A DBI spokesperson expressed the hope of “attracting a wide range of qualified candidates so that we have a large pool of candidates”. And that can still happen. But all the signs point to something else.

We must also view this attitude as an attitude made in a post-hui-post-wong world. Wong is Biggie here, of course; If Hui Wong hadn’t allowed his personal DBI run, he would have been replaced by someone who did.

But now they’re both gone. And numerous sources inside and outside DBI say that without the gigantic and unified figure of Wong, the two dominant factions of DBI are trying to cement power – with the Irish now on the rise.

While this position may still be filled by a candidate with a San Jose-worthy resume, the money wise rests with a seasoned in-house candidate with a bloodline that goes back to Ireland and is eligible for the position due to his relaxing educational requirements.

This upcoming deputy director will oversee the department’s inspection group. And if he is an internal employee, even if he is not personally corrupt, then he has developed and developed well in a corrupt system. He would hardly be the one to change the status quo because the status quo got him to where he is.

“On-site inspectors pull the levers that no one can see,” explains a long-time building inspector. “When I go out into the field, I can pull these levers. I can thwart your job or make things happen that other people can’t. ”

So it is important who is responsible here: the on-site inspectors learn to do the work that their bosses ask of them. Enforcement of projects – especially projects that are supervised by associated builders, engineers or approval officers – “an inspector is promoted”.

“If you’re all in the same camp and all have the same agenda, where are the checks and balances?” asks another inspector. “There are none.”

In other words, meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Contractor and approval expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-chief for public works Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

So that’s what’s at stake. Not that it was hard to find before, but FBI arrests and front page news made it clear in 2020: DBI is a corrupt, dysfunctional, and closed place where insiders have created and maintained systems at the expense of almost for them work each other.

The question now is whether this system should be anchored or demolished. And it is clear in which direction the existing power structure of the department is leaning.

It remains difficult to get a demolition permit in this city. Even a metaphysical one.

In the meantime, in December, management treated DBI employees to a coffee mug full of chocolate and sweets. On the side of the mug was a message: “Happy Holidays! DBI team. ”

A number of the staff here saw this as nothing more than a kind and sweet gesture. And it can be just that. But others saw more. The term “DBI team” brought them back to all times when management asked them to do things they shouldn’t to help the future authority.

Not doing these things means not being a “team player”. And being a team player is valued here.

So what does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

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